Peacework
Summer 2001


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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

Ask Me About Carol Bly

My Lord Bag of Rice: New and Selected Stories, Carol Bly, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed, 2000

I might as well admit it at the start: I was born and raised in Minnesota. Thirty years ago, that would have meant being proud of a heritage that included some of the best social programs in the country. In 2001 it means I must brace myself, for the person I am talking with is about to trot out one of three topics: Jesse Ventura, Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon, or the Coen brothers' film Fargo. What rankles is that on the basis of these cultural products (I understand one of them is now available as an action figure) people believe they understand Minnesota and its citizens. Often, these people seek verification: "Those accents in Fargo?--they're accurate, right?" As entertainment, Jesse, Keillor, and Fargo are middling (though I understand that if the corporate interests of Minnesota value an educated workforce they'd better bankroll an appealing gubernatorial candidate before Jesse completely dismantles that bastion of privilege, the University of Minnesota). As entertainment, fine. But as windows into reality? Jesse, Lake Wobegon, and Fargo are cartoons.

I wish the name of my native state would prompt people to ask me about Carol Bly, whose essays and short stories come out of Minnesota, reflecting life as it is lived there (and yes, there are funeral dinners organized and provided by women's church circles, Lutheran retreats to Duluth, and people named Einar and Leona), but because Bly's fiction is populated by "bullies," people who are trying to fleece other people every minute of every day, it reflects the moral crises faced by people in every region of the country. To say that Carol Bly is a Minnesota writer is like saying that Sherwood Anderson is an Ohio writer. As Tess Gallagher, writing of Bly's first collection for the New York Times Book Review, put it, "What gives these stories more than local relevance is that many of the ideals most associated with being American still reside in these descendants of Norwegian immigrants--pride in a job well done, resourcefulness, the capacity to laugh at oneself and to hold values beyond one's own immediate welfare."

Bly has published two collections of essays, Letters from the Country and Bad Government and Silly Literature, and two previous collections of short stories, Backbone and The Tomcat's Wife and Other Stories. Her newest offering is My Lord Bag of Rice: New and Selected Stories, a compilation of nine stories from the earlier collections and two new stories. It is an excellent introduction to her work and should help her win the readers she deserves.

Bly's stories are complex, as thoroughly populated as many contemporary novels, and seem shaped less by the demands of fiction than by the ongoing lives of her imagined characters. If there is a typical Bly protagonist, she is a woman who has gone through much of her life blinded by conventional wisdom and conditioned to respond politely to all stimuli. She is smart enough to recognize the difference between ignorant complacency and educated cynicism, and strong enough to give up the one without needing to adopt the other. Her story is an account of her struggles to see beyond the roles to which she has been consigned, and of her efforts to see the world as it actually is--and to change it. Often, the circumstances of her life mean that she is alone in these endeavors; her husband has either left her ("The Last of the Gold Star Mothers") or is ineffectual ("The Tomcat's Wife" and "The Tender Organizations"), paralyzed ("Gunnar's Sword"), or dead ("My Lord Bag of Rice"). Occasionally two women team up, as in "The Tender Organizations," whose villain is a battered wife finally in a position to exact retribution--by withholding her dying husband's pain medication. I do not mean to suggest that men are the only problem Bly's women face--or that these are somehow women's stories. They are stories about individuals and their communities.

In Bly's best stories, the ironies make the moral center hard to pinpoint. The more we think about the story, the more that moral center seems to shift back and forth. My favorite may be "After the Baptism," in which the protagonist, one Bill Benty, is the polite owner of a plant that makes chemical weapons. That the plant just happens to be across the street from the Benty residence is heavy-handed but points to a truth nonetheless: what we do and where we live is who we are. A farmer lives on the farm. A factory worker lives in a factory town. If, in real life, members of the upper classes routinely escape the consequences of their professional lives by living in the suburbs, in Carol Bly's fiction they are allowed no such exit. It's not so easy, Bly seems to say, to isolate work and leisure. After the baptism of his granddaughter, Bill Benty and his assembled guests hear a lesson in the form of a story told by Bill's "long-lost first cousin, Molly Wells." Molly is ironized in such a way that she stands for every American. Coddled and insulated by her husband's inherited wealth, and cheerfully, willfully ignorant of the immoral legacy from which it derives (in this case, one supposes slavery), she enjoys a pastoral Christian life with her husband, leaving the undesirable tasks of her existence to servants or her sister-in-law. When her husband gets cancer, Molly surprises herself by taking a fierce responsibility for him. "I told you about this," she says to the Bentys and their guests, "because I was so surprised to find how my life was not simple at all: it was all tied up in the flesh, this or that about the flesh. And how is flesh ever safe?" The dumbfounded auditors of Molly's intensely personal story then receive a blessing in the form of rain, which scatters the protestors marching in front of Benty Chemical. Whether and to what extent Bill Benty receives Molly's message, the story leaves unanswered, leaving us to ask ourselves whether we have received it.

Harriet White, the protagonist of "Gunnar's Sword," whose successful son lives in "a cape cod development in Edina [Minnesota]," may have given my own gripe mechanism several turns to the right. Telling her husband about the insubstantial soap operas so much enjoyed by their fellow residents at the Jacob Lutheran Home, she complains that "those television characters don't seem like real people at all--and you know, they never show where the people are--they're always in a room somewhere--you never see a real place that counts, like a farm or anything like it--it's as if none of them had any place to belong to." We're lucky. Carol Bly's characters belong to us. Their stories are ours, wherever we grew up.

--David Thoreen teaches writing and literature at Assumption College, in Worcester, MA.

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